Google issues statement on Safari and user privacy

20 Feb 2012

Google has issued a statement to clarify its position in light of the Safari cookies debacle that started last week.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported last week that Google and others used a special code that tricked Apple’s Safari browser into letting them monitor user behaviour.

The report spurred three lawmakers from the U.S. House of Representatives to pen a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Friday, asking it to investigate whether the internet giant had indeed violated a consent agreement it reached with the FTC last year.

Google reaction

Rachel Whetstone, senior vice-president, Communications and Public Policy at Google, has issued a statement in response to the Safari issue. She started off by saying that the WSJ “mischaracterises what happened and why”.

“We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It’s important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information,” she said.

“Unlike other major browsers, Apple’s Safari browser blocks third-party cookies by default. However, Safari enables many web features for its users that rely on third parties and third-party cookies, such as ‘Like’ buttons.”  

Whetstone drew upon how Google last year started using this functionality to enable features for signed-in Google users on Safari who had “opted” to see personalised ads and other content. This included the ability to “+1” things, she indicated.

“To enable these features, we created a temporary communication link between Safari browsers and Google’s servers, so that we could ascertain whether Safari users were also signed into Google, and had opted for this type of personalisation.”

Whetstone said Google had designed this type of personalisation so that information passing between the user’s Safari browser and Google’s servers was “anonymous”, with the aim of “effectively creating a barrier between their personal information and the web content they browse”.

She said the Safari browser, however, contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser.

Removing advertising cookies

“We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers.”  

She said it was important to note that, just as on other browsers, these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.

“Users of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome were not affected. Nor were users of any browser (including Safari) who have opted out of our interest-based advertising programme using Google’s Ads Preferences Manager,” said Whetstone.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic